All the STEM narratives that were in the news a year ago (and were tracked in the prior media analysis) are still active and visible. These include: concerns about the STEM workforce pipeline; gaps in diversity and access to STEM educations and careers; reactions to ongoing teacher shortages; reform discussions about the best way to teach STEM; and the implications of inadequate respect for the profession of teaching.
That said, a handful of these storylines appear to have evolved and/or gained increased attention, while additional themes have entered the conversation since the election of Donald Trump.
Beginning with the latter: the biggest topics in education and STEM education under the new administration are 1) the aggressive interest in charter schools and vouchers, and the corresponding anti-public school rhetoric, from Education Secretary DeVos; and 2) the willful disdain for science, and in particular climate science, as expressed by the President’s words, cabinet appointments and budget proposals.
Trump Administration, Science and the Resistance
A Washington Post column from late August by Valerie Strauss – “There Trump goes again bashing public schools — and why it matters” – offers a brief timeline of recent Trump words and actions that amount to “a pattern of his - and of DeVos’s - to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems.” A New York Times story from June, “Charter School Founded by DeVos Family Reflects National Tensions,” captures how much the debate over charter schools has been elevated and increasingly polarized:
Ms. DeVos and Mr. Trump are proposing to increase funding for public charters, which serve more than three million students nationwide, by $168 million, or 50 percent, while cutting total education funding by $9 billion, much of which would come from programs primarily for traditional public schools.
While charter schools have long had bipartisan support – they have been championed by every president since Bill Clinton – the movement finds itself at a crossroads. Charter school advocates have long said they support traditional public education as well, but the Trump budget has presented them with something of a choice: us or them.
These policy proposals are also being manifested in the kinds of public events that Trump’s cabinet attends. Last week, Secretary DeVos visited multiple schools in Tallahassee, Florida, but she failed to visit a single public school. From the Washington Post writeup, “A schools superintendent calls Betsy DeVos’s trip to Florida capital ‘insulting’”:
Superintendent Rocky Hanna called her trip there “insulting” because she failed to visit a traditional public school and instead stopped at a charter school, which is publicly funded but privately operated, as well as at two private religious schools….She did not go to a traditional school in the Leon County School District, where some 36,000 students attend classes; that did not amuse Superintendent Hanna. The Tallahassee Democrat quoted him as saying: “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public school system. And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.”
After a similar event in March, Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post also took DeVos and Ivanka Trump to task for falsely portraying support for STEM education. In “The irony in Ivanka Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s push for STEM education,” Strauss quotes Randi Weingarten’s disapproval after a public event at the National Air and Space Museum in which Trump and DeVos avowed their support for STEM:
“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump are feigning an interest in STEM careers with a photo op at the National Air and Space Museum while eliminating all funding for NASA’s education programs. This takes chutzpah to a new level. If this administration was genuinely interested in promoting STEM programs, it would walk the walk, not just talk the talk. The next generation of astronauts, scientists, engineers and mathematicians need support, not budget cuts eliminating the very programs being promoted.“
There was also no mention of the 13.5 percent in cuts Trump has proposed to the Education Department, which include the reduction or elimination of grants for teacher training, after-school programs and aid to low-income and first-generation college students.
As the budget proposal data points above indicate, the administration’s push for charter schools and defunding public schools has direct implications for the teaching of science. The New Yorker published an alarmed column last December on “Donald Trump’s War on Science,” and it emphasized DeVos’ religiously-based opposition to science, suggesting that it could trickle down into what is taught in classrooms across America:
And the Trump Administration is on course to undermine science in another way: through education. Educators have various concerns about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education—they object to her efforts to shield charter schools from government regulation, for example—but one issue stands above the rest: DeVos is a fundamentalist Christian with a long history of opposition to science. If her faith shapes her policies—and there is evidence that it will—she could shape science education decisively for the worse, by systematically depriving young people, in an era where biotechnology will play a key economic and health role worldwide, of a proper understanding of the very basis of modern biology: evolution.
The perceived threat that DeVos poses to science education is not solely based on her personal religious views; this past August, Scientific American published a lengthy attack on one of the centerpieces of DeVos’ agenda – school vouchers – and argued that “Studies show that school vouchers lead to lower math and reading scores. So why has the Trump administration embraced them?” Valerie Strauss noted the piece for its strong take: “Scientific American - a magazine not exactly focused on education - roasts Trump administration for pushing school vouchers.” Indeed, Scientific American has published multiple posts about the threat a Trump administration poses to the teaching of science, the most recent one coming in April: “How Is Betsy DeVos Bad for Public Education? Let us count the ways.”
Other science publications have also connected the dots to Trump’s implications for schools; an op-ed in January in the Boston Globe’s health and science publication, Stat News, explored the question: “Will education secretary pick Betsy DeVos dilute science instruction in schools?” Anticipating a political and news climate in which science will be questioned and maligned, the piece (authored by two heads of the National Center for Science Education) issued a kind of call to arms that “During the Trump years, it will be up to all of us to let science teachers know that we recognize, support, and applaud them for the crucial and difficult role they play in equipping the next generation to understand the power of scientific thinking.” As the quote indicates, the concern among observers is not only will science education be diluted as a result of poorer programing and an openness to creationism-style approaches to science; they fear that in some communities, teachers will in fact feel threatened and unduly challenged in their own classrooms if they try to assert basic scientific facts.
One response from the political and science communities is to work to get more scientists elected to public office. National Public Radio ran a story in February about one such effort: “Fearing Climate Change Policy Under Trump, STEM Group Works To Get Scientists Elected”:
SHAUGHNESSY NAUGHTON: But what we are trying to do, although we include physicians in our umbrella group, we really want to bring people in from teaching, from research, from fields that are under-represented currently.
MICHEL MARTIN: Shaughnessy Naughton is a chemist, an entrepreneur, she’s the founder of 314 Action. That’s a group that aims to encourage scientists people from the STEM fields - science technology, engineering and math - to run for elective office.
Among the less political, more niche and STEM-specific news narratives, a few things stand out:
Computers are everywhere and students must become literate
While the rise of technology in educational contexts isn’t new, computer science and coding stand out among STEM subjects as skills that observers seem to insist be made available to all youth. Knowing your way around a computer is no longer just a forward, progressive way to engage with technology; it’s becoming an essential skill. In the same way that people speak of literacy in reading and writing, multiple articles in the past year speak of computer languages as the new medium of literacy in which anyone entering the professional world must be versed. It’s not just about getting a cutting-edge job at Google or becoming an inventor; literacy in computers and coding is becoming a basic thing any graduate needs to know to function in the world. From a pedagogical standpoint, this emphasis on functionality can been seen in the rise of maker fairs and hands-on approaches to STEM. As one indication of this trend, a New York Times story in February focused on the rise of tech’s influence within the hospitality industry. In “Hoteliers Comb the Ranks of Tech Workers to Gain an Edge,” the story states:
’‘All companies are becoming technology companies to some degree, and this is especially true in the hospitality industry,” said Scott Dobroski, who works in corporate communications for Glassdoor….While many college students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math are attracted to the household-name tech companies in Seattle and Silicon Valley, Mr. Leidinger says he tells them, “If you’re really into technology, there’s a revolution happening in hospitality,” and as part of a smaller team, “you can drive, innovate and take ownership.’'…. Data science is another area of growth for the industry – finding, for example, where customers are online, how they make decisions and how hotel resources are used. ’'We need data scientists to make sense of what is going on so we can compete against online travel agents like Expedia and maximize revenues,” Mr. Sharma said.
Education Week covered a report from a year ago that stressed the significance of computer science learning in K-12, in “Bridging the Computer Science Access Gap”: “Just 22 percent of 12th graders say they’ve ever taken a computer science course, according to an analysis of national data published this month. And more than half of seniors attend high schools that don’t even offer computer science.”
A few instances of the use of literacy to describe computer science competency:
- “We must not shut low-income students out of computer sciences: The latest literacy crisis has nothing to do with reading,” Hechinger Report, Opinion, Idit Harel, August 18, 2016
- “STEM Literacy and Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, Opinion, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, September 16, 2016
- “A Toy for Toddlers Doubles as Code Bootcamp,” New York Times, April 5, 2017:
As parents increasingly grow eager to give their children an edge in technology skills by getting them to think like a computer early, start-ups and entrepreneurs see potential in creating toys with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – popularly referred to as STEM. 'It is 21st-century literacy,” he said. “The idea behind Cubetto was to create a tool that would make that literacy accessible to this age group, 3 to 6.”
Diversity increasingly important
Perhaps fittingly for the heightened racial polarization in the country during the Trump era, diversity in STEM education and careers also appears to be taking on more and more attention. Where just a few of years ago the lacking diversity in Silicon Valley or in STEM graduation rates might have registered as a new finding and concern, there is now a steady drumbeat of initiatives, calls to action, and continued red flags about this aspect of STEM education and professional life. Diversity in STEM on all fronts – racial, gender, economic, geographic – is a hot-button issue. A few examples:
- “As Part of STEM Effort, Girl Scouts to Offer Cybersecurity Badges,” Education Week, July 18, 2017
- “Barnard’s president on how to develop STEM-confident girls at home,” Washington Post, Sian Beilock, September 5, 2017
- “From Skyhook To STEM: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Brings The Science,” NPR, Eric Westervelt, July 27, 2017
- “The Maddeningly Simple Way Tech Companies Can Employ More Women,” New York Times, Opinion, Katharine Zaleski, August 15, 2017
- “The Google engineer’s memo shows the stereotypes that keep women out of STEM,” Vox, Alexia Fernández Campbell, August 10, 2017
- “Women in Science (Of Course),” New York Times, Letters to the Editor, Rebecca Barone, September 19, 2016
To the Editor:
Re “The Aliens Below Us” (Sept. 13): Kudos to you and your staff for the prominence of women in both the photographs and quotes within the article. As a 30-something female engineer, I am sensitive to images of women in STEM fields and professions, and seeing a headline photograph of two women with ponytails in hard hats collecting samples – and subsequent photos and quotes of women throughout the article – is wonderful. Though women in hard hats in nothing new, for The Times to place such a photograph so distinctly without any comment about gender feels like a triumph. The very casualness of the equality of women in this article gives me great hope for the next generations of female scientists.
Rebecca Barone, Centerville, Ohio
Teacher Shortage in every state
The teacher shortage continues to be a pressing issue. In a story titled “Districts Turn to Emergency Measures for Hard-to-Staff Teaching Posts,” Education Week reported in late August that “For the 2017-18 school year, every state reported geographic and/or subject-area shortage areas to the U.S. Department of Education.” A related story by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post emphasizes:
The annual nationwide listing of areas with teacher shortages, compiled by the U.S. Education Department, shows many districts struggling to fill positions in subjects such as math, the traditional sciences, foreign language and special education, but also in reading and English language arts, history, art, music, elementary education, middle school education, career and technical education, health, and computer science.
…the problem has grown more acute in recent years as the profession has been hit with low morale over low pay, unfair evaluation methods, assaults on due-process rights, high-stakes testing requirements, insufficient resources and other issues.
According to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, teacher education enrollment dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, a 35 percent reduction, between 2009 and 2014, the latest year for which there is data. And there are high levels of attrition, with nearly 8 percent of the teaching workforce leaving every year, the majority before retirement age.
The Learning Policy Institute report found five key factors that influence whether a teacher decides to enter, remain in or leave the profession: salaries and other compensation; preparation and costs to entry; hiring and personnel management; induction and support for new teachers; and working conditions, including school leadership, professional collaboration and shared decision-making, accountability systems, and resources for teaching and learning.
Public Polls and what people want in an education system
Finally, the latest Phi Delta Kappan International opinion poll about Americans’ attitudes on the U.S. education system found decreased support for charter schools, some increase in support for vouchers, high marks for local public schools – though low marks for the education system in general – and a desire for more job and career training (i.e. not solely academic experiences) from schools.
- “National Education Poll Finds Americans Want More Job And Career Skills Training In School,” NPR, Kevin McCorry, September 6, 2017
- “Americans express support for traditional public schools in new poll, even as Trump disparages them,” Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, August 29, 2017
- “Secret Finding from PDK Poll: Support for Vouchers is Rising,” Education Next, Paul Peterson, August 30, 2017
- “Public Support for Charter Schools Plummets, Poll Finds; But opposition decreases toward school vouchers,” Education Week, Arianna Prothero, August 15, 2017
- “New Poll Shows Sharp Decline in Support for Public Charter Schools Over Past Year,” The 74 Million, Kate Stringer, August 15, 2017
- “What the Public Wants From Schools: An annual poll on national perceptions of education reveals an emphasis on services beyond traditional learning, such as mental-health support and career education,” The Atlantic, Emily Richmond, August 29, 2017
- “More Americans Give Top Grades to Public Schools,” Education Week, Sarah D. Sparks, August 28, 2017
Other education stories
And of course, there are still more education stories out there: Student debt, gender and racial pay gaps among educators, the importance of college, the problems and controversies concerning for-profit colleges, lack of proficiency in science, the impact of natural disasters on school children, Trump administration cuts to teen pregnancy prevention programs, how the administration’s Dreamers policy impacts school children, and more.
Takeaways for 100Kin10
- The national education conversation has become increasingly politicized and partisan during the Trump administration, and as a result, issues around STEM, including STEM education, are less prevalent in the national education conversation.
- Continue to tell stories about programs and teachers who buck the trends, e.g. “bright spots” across the network as identified through the grand challenges.
- Tell stories about the importance of and successes in expanding diversity in STEM.
- Uphold the importance of both science and science teachers in the current political/cultural moment.
- Connect the root causes identified in the grand challenges to timely issues like respect for and professionalism of teaching; innovations in hands-on engagement with STEM learning; stories of school districts, educators, public officials and communities working together to improve public education and local schools.
- Show how the network is working together at a time when many schools, communities and teachers may feel left to fend for themselves.